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Flight Plans Newsletter

05. Space and Pop Culture: "Them and Us" - The 1950s

Rocket toy typical of the 1950s. By Richard Wallace, The Museum of Flight

As the United States entered the 1950s, outer space and space technology became recurrent images in American popular culture, new metaphors for the advancement of science and, conversely, for our overt and subconscious fears about communism and world domination.

Films such as 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “It Came from Outer Space” from 1953 presented benevolent alien beings that wished humanity no harm. Other films stressed extraterrestrial violence. 1953’s “War of the Worlds,” adapted from the classic H.G. Wells novel of the same name, featured an invasion of huge machines piloted by Martian creatures which moved across the human landscape destroying everything and everyone in their path.

The most chilling movie of the period, 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” showed an alien race taking overtowns and cities by growing copies of human beings in large, vegetable-like pods.

Speculative fiction also explored encounters with other worlds. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 book “The Martian Chronicles,” a series of linked stories about Martian colonization by humans, created a highly nuanced account of human hope and folly. Here, the aliens are us. Other important science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein made imaginative use of space travel in their works.

Preoccupations with space and otherworldly creatures were not confined to popular entertainment. In the first years of the decade, a number of UFO sightings were reported in the skies around the world — some in the Washington, D.C., area. The terms “flying saucer” and “little green men” entered our everyday language expressing both a healthy skepticism and a sense of wonder.

Tomorrowland: A Vision of the Future

Although Americans had some worries about space travel, the idea of reaching other worlds was, more often than not, exciting and contagious.

Of all the writers to address the positive benefits of space exploration, none was more famous or successful than the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Coming to America at the end of World War II with a number of other German rocket engineers, von Braun, the designer of the V2 rocket, quickly became known as the world’s leading rocket expert. In the early 1950s, he wrote a series of highly popular articles for Collier’s magazine about his vision for the future of space.

Even more influential was his association with film animator Walt Disney. Both men were quick to understand the power of the new medium of television to promote ideas. Disney’s vision of entertainment and commerce was a theme park called Disneyland comprising four areas: Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland. For the first three areas, Disney would use material from his feature films and TV shows created by his movie studio. For the space-themed Tomorrowland, Disney needed another kind of technical expertise and von Braun was the perfect collaborator.

Together they produced three TV shows, utilizing Disney’s skillful animation techniques to visualize von Braun’s concepts of moon rockets, space stations and a trip to Mars.

Viewed by millions of TV watchers in the mid-1950s, von Braun’s dramatic vision of space flight made the exploration of our solar system seem possible.

Decoder Rings and Ray Guns

Space was fun for kids, too. Although product advertising for children was in its infancy in the 1950s, faithful viewers of TV programs like “Captain Video Space Cadet” and “Space Patrol” could purchase space toys of varying sophistication.

According to Roaring Rockets, a Web page dedicated to 1950s TV space culture, affordable items included little brass decoder rings, secret ray gun flashlights and, at the other end of the spectrum, the pricey Captain Video Space Helmet which cost a full dollar. The ray gun of choice for both TV space heroes and the kids on the block was the Buck Rogers Sonic Ray Blaster.

Shakespeare in Space

The most famous space personality of the 1950s was not a dashing galactic hero or a brainy scientist. In fact, he was not even human. Robbie the Robot, a full sized talking robot, was introduced to popular culture in one of the most intriguing movies of the period, “Forbidden Planet” from 1956.

Loosely based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (Robbie stands in for Ariel), the story takes place in A.D. 2200 on the planet Altair II. An allegory that can be interpreted on several levels, “Forbidden Planet” resented both the dark and beneficial sides of scientific achievement, and Robbie the Robot became the first in a long line of likeable robots, the spiritual father of C3PO from “Star Wars.”

Sputnik, the First Artificial Satellite

On October 4, 1957, America’s seeming ambivalence about space underwent a startling change when the USSR launched the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit. Named Sputnik, a Russian word that means “fellow traveler,”the shiny, basketball-sized silver ball orbited the earth every 90 minutes, emitting a high-pitched repeating sound.

Suddenly the safety of the world’s skies seemed in jeopardy for real. The Space Age had dawned while America as sleeping, and the race for space supremacy was about to begin.